Bad Habits Make Good Character Growth

by Jason Black

Bad habits make good character growth

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

Many character arcs hinge on transformative moments: event or experiences that change the character.  The moment may be a realization that something she thought was true isn't.  It may change the way she thinks about life or how she interacts with other people.  Whatever change she undergoes, afterwards readers knows one thing: this character is going to behave differently than before.

Transformative moments, when a character grows and becomes a better person, can be deeply profound and moving.  That is, if you make them dramatic.  If you show them well.  It doesn't work to simply tell the reader that your character has changed, like this:

Jane decided she'd had enough of bad boyfriends.  She'd was tired of being stuck in bad relationships simply because she was too afraid of facing an ugly breakup scene.  That's it, Jane thought.  Enough.  I'm going over to Carl's place right now to end this.

This describes a deeply transformative moment—a character seizing an opportunity to start actively controlling her life—but pardon me while I yawn.  I see this all too often in my clients' manuscripts.  Transformative moments pass by in little ripples when they deserve a tsunami.

How do you make the transformative moment dramatic?  You show it, rather than tell it, and for this purpose nothing beats a habit.  Especially a bad habit.  The trick is to link the bad habit to the aspect of the character that will change.  Use the habit as an external representation of the internal character trait.  Then, changes in the character's behavior concerning that habit signal to the reader that the underlying trait is changing too.

Suppose Jane has a smoking habit to accompany her bad boyfriend habit.  How do we link them?  We can let Jane smoke as an avoidance mechanism.  Rather than facing uncomfortable situations directly, Jane dodges them by going outside for a smoke.  That's the trait Jane needs to change in order to grow as a person: stop avoiding, and start confronting.  Smoking isn't really her problem, it is only a manifestation of her tendency to run away from conflict.

Making cigarettes a representation for what Jane needs to change can work wonders for your story, but you must set it up well ahead of time.  You can't spring this representation on the reader by telling them about it just prior to Jane's breakup scene with Carl.  You have to show it, early and often, as your novel progresses.

Readers must see several instances of Jane engaging in this behavior earlier in the novel.  Show her going outside for a smoke rather than sitting down to the unpleasant task of paying bills.  Show her lighting up rather than calling her mother for an inevitable earful of questions about when she and Carl are going to get married.  Show her taking a smoke-break at work before a meeting where she's supposed to present a project that isn't quite finished, and show her ending up late for the meeting because of it.

None of these situations have any bearing on Carl, but they do plant a firm connection in readers' minds between cigarettes and Jane's avoidance problem.  With that setup, let's revisit the breakup scene:

Jane stepped out of her car, pulling her overcoat tight against the chill night air.  She walked up the path to Carl's door, and stood on the doorstep.  Soft lumps of cigarette butts, old and flattened, pressed against the sole of her shoe.  How am I going to do this?  What am I going to say?  She stared at the doorbell, wondering. 

Jane reached into her coat pocket for a cigarette, drawing one out.  She held the thin paper tube in one hand, staring at it.  She looked down at the butts littering the doorstep, dirty white against charcoal black smudges.  Too many to count.  Her lip curled as she flicked the unlit cigarette away from her. It tumbled through the air, beyond the reach of Carl's porch light, vanishing into darkness.  I know exactly what to say.  Jane rang the doorbell, listening to its muffled, low sound behind the door.  I just have to say it.

First, readers see the familiar habit coming into play again.  They recognize the situation as one Jane would rather avoid.  They see the evidence that she has often stood on this doorstep, smoking to avoid arguments with Carl.  They're expecting her to do it again, to see her stand there sucking down a cigarette until she loses her nerve for the confrontation.

But then she doesn't.  She catches herself at that moment of avoidance.  She doesn't let herself succumb to the delay that will kill her nerve.  She doesn't light up, but rather throws the cigarette away unsmoked.  She does not avoid, she acts.  She summons confidence and determination instead of insecurity, and rings the doorbell.

That is the power of Jane's transformative moment: to dramatically show Jane rejecting passivity and seizing control.  Now, when Jane confronts Carl, we almost expect him to say "What's come over you?"  Character growth, Carl, that's what.  The manifestation of her character arc.

Habits, especially bad ones, are wonderful tools for showing a character's growth because they give the reader an external symbol for what would otherwise be internal and invisible character traits.  Once the habit is well established—once that symbolic connection is drawn—all you have to do is change the habitual behavior to signal a change in the character's deeper self.

Jason Black is a freelance book editor who actively blogs about character development. He recently appeared as a book doctor at the 2009 PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason, visit his website at

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